How to Make Room For the Sublime in Your Life

I recently came across some interesting commentary from researchers about experiences with the aesthetically sublime: those rare moments when you encounter something beautiful in a deeply touching way. If you’ve ever had one of these you may have recognized it by the way your breath caught in your throat, or the hair on the back of your neck stood up. They are “wow” moments, when you feel connected to something greater than you, and they can open the door to new ways of seeing the world or yourself.

These moments might be rare, but it so happens that the conditions for experiencing them are pretty common. It's just that they don't come together in just the right way very often. I’m also struck by how well the prerequisites for these awesome experiences work as guidelines for having mind-expanding, self-actualizing experiences of all kinds—the types of experiences that help you have a rich, meaningful, Right Life. Let’s take a look.

Prerequisite for the Aesthetically Sublime How It Relates to Having a Right Life
Being in, or otherwise being connected with, vast spaces. These can be man-made, like a towering cathedral, or natural, like the Grand Canyon. Taking guidance from your heart and your larger, deeply-held values is how you connect with your core self. It places the day-to-day vagaries of your life into perspective and supports long-term wellbeing.

The alternative is operating within a small-minded, ego-driven framework. For example, being motivated by extrinsic rewards like money or power, and being reactive rather than responsive. These things make your core self claustrophobic.

Having a sense of personal safety. Even if you're witnessing a sublime thing that is violent and dangerous, like Niagara Falls or a tornado, in order to appreciate it you need to feel like you aren't going to get hurt.

When you’re in danger your primitive neurobiological survival mechanisms kick in and trump your experience to savor nice elements of the experience. Something similar happens when you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin and with those around you.

Without this security, your energies are more likely directed toward those small-minded, self-protective, fear-based measures that keep your core self locked inside, rather than to wise actions favoring your true values and needs.

The right context. One researcher points out that the Mona Lisa might lose some of its luster if it were displayed in a museum less magnificent than the Louvre. However, were it to be displayed in a dirt-floored fisherman’s cottage in Southeast Asia, the juxtaposition of the artwork and the setting might well yield an even more sublime viewing experience than you might have in Paris.


This is what resilience and meaning-making in the face of setbacks is all about: staying light enough on your narrative identity “feet” to be able to interpret the events of your life in alternate ways, rather than staying with the rationale that your brain may naturally settle on first. Your brain is wired to give preference to the negative, which is good for surviving but bad for thriving.

A complete disruption of your existing understanding of things and the need to form a new understanding. Not that you need to be successful at doing it, but that a reworking of your understanding is called for. In other words, your world is rocked.
that provide an opportunity for meaning-making are just one way to arrive at a new understanding of things. Any time you are exposed to something new, take a chance, or push yourself to a higher level of performance, you’re leaving your comfort zone and opening to change.

The Sublime Life

Whether the experience of being awestruck and disoriented in a perspective-expanding way occurs by seeing something or through some other type of event, these are examples of what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.” They are memorable, light-bulb moments that you could view as the basic units of self-actualization. So, the more of them you can have, the better, and you can improve your odds by creating the conditions in your life that favor them.

You’ll need the sense of being safe and secure, which you can get from the supportive people in your life. You can also develop this resource internally, in a couple of ways. One is by cultivating kindness and compassion for yourself.

The other is by pursuing goals aligned with your core self, which can give you a boost of confidence. It’s a sort of circular process, and a little counterintuitive, too. You’ll feel more secure the more of your core self you reveal, and the more secure you feel, the more empowered you’ll feel to act in the interests of your core self, even when doing so is difficult and risky.  

That second part is very important, because having security at the expense of an adventurous spirit will keep you stuck. Self-actualization requires providing yourself with a steady stream of fresh, new input to incorporate into your life. That means you can’t just look in the beautiful places and hope to see something beautiful. You need to look in the beautiful places and the ugly, scary, and unfamiliar places too, and hope to see something unexpected.

The same old-same old isn’t going to rock your world. You need to step outside of your comfort zone in as many directions as you can, because your epiphanies will often come from the last places you’d expect. Once you integrate them with your existing understanding, a new part of you will be active in the world, and stay active.

Jim Hjort, LCSW

Jim operates a psychotherapy practice, helps people overcome roadblocks to self-actualization as a Right Life® coach, and appears at speaking and teaching engagements. He studied Sociology and Abnormal Psychology at UCLA and holds an MSW from USC, with a specialization in Systems of Recovery from Mental Illness. He has also been awarded the Certified Mindfulness Facilitator designation from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. 


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Rita Bourgeois's picture

This is challenging. Thank you for your insights.

Jim Hjort LCSW's picture

Indeed it is, and you're welcome!

paula's picture

Jim, I love your posts! I find them insightful, compassionate, revelatory, and beautifully written. Thank you!

Jim Hjort LCSW's picture

Thank you so much, Paula. I'm glad you are enjoying them!

Ginn downing's picture

Awesome, I'm so happy for you.  You have created the right life for yourself and are finding the sublime and then teaching others how to approach finding their own... Best wishes for all of us!

Jim Hjort LCSW's picture

Thanks so much for your support, Ginn. We're all in this together!

julie's picture

Really nice article. We don't often hear how vital awe and wonder are to our fulfilment in life, and this guide really makes it easy to discover more of it.

Jim Hjort LCSW's picture

Glad to hear that this piece resonated with you, Julie!

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